In Depth

Coronavirus: how a medieval Spanish town became a Covid hotspot

A cluster of towns in idyllic La Rioja have an alarming mortality rate

In crowded cities, the risk of contracting Covid-19 is obvious - yet in tranquil rural towns, the threat may be more insidious.

Northern Spain’s “scenic wine region of La Rioja, with its scattered hilltop villages, might have seemed a less-than-likely location for coronavirus to take root”, says The Telegraph.

“But with more than 4,000 confirmed cases amongst a population of just 315,000, La Rioja has the highest concentration of positives amongst all of Spain’s regions.”

Indeed, outside of “the confined spaces of care homes and cruise ships, Covid-19 has been at its most lethal in a handful of southern European country towns”, The Guardian reports. 

Among those hardest hit is La Rioja’s Santo Domingo, which has a death rate of 550 per 100,000 people. That compares with 67 in London, according to latest figures from Public Health England.

“We became the Chernobyl of coronavirus,” Maria Jose Duenas, an economist who lives in the Spanish town, told The Telegraph. “Everyone knows someone who has died.”

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What caused the hotspots?

No one really knows why the new coronavirus spread so quickly in the region. The Spanish government was guilty of a “lack of transparency”, says The Guardian, “but there is no sign of other major mistakes in Santo Domingo that are not widely shared elsewhere”.

As in many other places, local people were slow to recognise the threat.

As late as 12 March, the Los Angeles Times described rumours of an outbreak in La Rioja as a “plague” of misinformation. “Business owners and local politicians are eager to promote the image of a tranquil town whose residents continue with their normal lives,” the newspaper said.

A few days later, however, the Spanish government imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. Children were not allowed to leave home for 45 days and all outside exercise was banned.

The role of the church

“Given religion’s central role in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, it is not surprising that some blamed the church,” says The Guardian.

They may have good reason. “On 17 February, a group of 46 parishioners had set out by coach to visit Rome and Florence,” the paper says. Having dropped off a bottle of rioja wine for Pope Francis, they “returned via northern Italy on 22 February, just as the first cases were being reported there”.

Others suggest the spread of the virus followed an older religious route.

Santo Domingo sits on an old pilgrim pathway, the Camino de Santiago, that attracts more than 350,000 walkers per year from all over the world. About half of them pass through the town. 

“In early March, local doctors had lobbied for part of the route to be closed, but this didn’t happen until the nationwide lockdown was imposed,” The Guardian reports.

The recovery

Although Santo Domingo and its neighbours have been hit hard by Covid-19, they are also leading the way out of the pandemic.

“La Rioja has brought its R transmission ratio well under one, has no patients in intensive care and has registered less than 30 new cases in the past two weeks,” The Telegraph reported last weekend.

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